Local volunteers make sure that the show goes on at rural cinema

7 December 2016
By James Desauvage

Despite cinema being culturally sacred for French people, municipal cinemas are in crisis with audiences down and councils asked for bigger subsidies for this ‘public service’. Yet one cinema has bucked the trend…
August 1980 was a bad month for movie-goers in Castillonnès, Lot-et-Garonne, as their cinema, housed in what centuries earlier had been the local hospice, was not just ailing, it had died – killed by television.
But three years later, thanks to a retired Aérospatiale worker at Toulouse, it re-opened – not as a commercial enterprise but as a not-for-profit association called Ciné 4.
Jean Marbleu believed not just in cinema as ‘the seventh art’, but also in l’esprit bénévole, the volunteer ethos: if enough like-minded enthusiasts could be persuaded to give their time for free, Ciné 4 could be viable.
Over more than three decades, he has been proved right. There are now 38 volunteers – nearly double the original number – and one paid, full-time employee.
All the original volunteers were French but today six are British and Keith and Christine Milligan, both retirees, were inspired by the dedication of the French volunteers when they signed up eight years ago.
Christine is on the confectionery roster: “I sell ice creams to all sorts of people I wouldn’t otherwise manage to keep up with, and we’ve made some good friends among the team, which makes us feel, well, as if we live here.”
Keith, a former flight operations manager for Cathay Pacific, is one of Ciné 4’s projectionists: ‘It’s about giving something back to the community. But it also has its responsibilities.
“As the projectionist, you can’t just push the button and go home. You have to be there for the duration – not only because something may go wrong but because three members of staff have to be on duty throughout in case of an emergency.’
In 2011, Ciné 4 took ‘the big leap’ and, with financial aid and cooperation from all levels of government, it went digital, 3D included. Even the Crédit Agricole branch chipped in.
Two years later, with extra Lot-et-Garonne department aid, it had a total make-over of the auditorium, plush new seats, air-conditioning and a ‘loop’ for the hard of hearing.
Today Ciné 4 offers French and English-language films, including the latest blockbusters (Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond, Bridget Jones’s Baby, etc) and Absolutely Fabulous at Christmas.
Added to these are regular ‘niche’ sessions – for schools, mothers and children, handicapped people and devotees of the old classics – in all, about 10 screenings a week.
But no credit cards and no pensioner discount. When asked, the response is typically: ‘We’re all pensioners here!’
Patrick Maule is another volunteer who does a regular stint on the ticket desk. He also selects and promotes the English-language films. It is quite a transition for the former director of personnel for Hong Kong’s underground railways.
He says: “It’s fun. I get a kick out of it. It’s also quite a lot of work.
“Choosing the films takes two days a month; doing the programme is the best part of a day; and sending out the email reminders is another day’s work.
“So, maybe four or five days a month. And then there’s being on duty at the cash desk.”
Inevitably, the French tend to favour the French films and the British the English films, but because the English films are sub-titled in French, they attract a significant French audience.
The reverse does not apply; there are no English sub-titles on French films.
As a result, Ciné 4 is losing potential revenue from English-speakers – British and also many Dutch – who might flock to see the best French movies, if only to improve their French.
The reason is due to distribution rights – French films distributed outside France have sub-titles (vérsion multilingues) but those inside France do not. However, there is no doubt directors and producers far prefer not to have sub-titles cluttering the screen.
Social nuances are more complex as British people like to eat after a film but before 20.30 so they can be in bed by 23.00 – making 18.30 the latest start time for a film.
The French prefer to eat before, will happily go to a film at 21.00 and do not complain about not getting home till midnight.
So, English films get two showings a week – starting at different times for the different audiences.
Audiences of more than 16,000 tickets a year are impressive for a small, 205-seat, single-screen cinema in the rural depths. And, encouragingly, English films have attracted steadily increasing audiences since 2010. Anything with Judi Dench and/or Maggie Smith, preferably both, is guaranteed.
Tickets at €7 each or €55 for 10 generate a healthy revenue stream, even after the distributors have taken their cut – which in France averages 40% of the ticket price.
Ciné 4 also gets a €10,000 subsidy from the Centre National du Cinéma, the government agency that supports ‘the art of the moving image’, while Castillonnès commune allows use of the building free of rent and structural maintenance costs.
So, Ciné 4 keep its head above water but no-one is complacent. Compet­ition from the big multiplexes is an obvious worry but so too is the ageing audience profile. The typical British patron is middle-aged or retired – long-time resident expats and UK tradesmen with families who migrated to exploit the renovation boom.
But, as Ciné 4 president Joseph Jégu recognises, younger film-goers are the future and are more readily seduced by bright lights and big screens, even if 30km or more away: “Adolescents are the hardest sector to attract. Once youngsters move to lycée (15-18 year olds), they want to go and see films in Villeneuve-sur-Lot or Bergerac.”
Putting in a second screen has been mooted, but you still have to bring in the punters.
Patrick Maule is also on the management committee and feels it will be difficult to maintain current levels: “More films, more sessions, doesn’t necessarily equate with more audiences. There’s only so many times you want to go to the cinema.”
Ciné 4 has advantages over its commercial rivals: its volunteer workforce and their operating flexibility. It was Jean Marbleu’s innovative strategy back in 1983 and may prove it again.
But, Mr Maule says to remember the bigger picture: “So many people say we are so lucky to have a nice cinema in the middle of rural France; with good films, regularly, in comfort and air-conditioning. It’s gob-smacking.”
For emailed updates of Ciné 4’s English-language programmes, email cine4programme.english@orange.fr

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